Limitations of Language for Conveying Navigational Knowledge: Way-Finding in the Southeastern Solomon Islands

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American Anthropologist

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Polynesia, navigation, spatial orientation, cognition




Investigators have tended to view navigation either through the lens of cognition or of experience and embodiment. The cognitive approach assumes that perceptually salient aspects of the environment are mapped and retrieved in the mind (so-called cognitive mapping). The alternative is that navigators “feel” their way by ongoing sensations of movement, assessing their position through the sequential, temporal order in which salient environmental information is perceived. Recently, others have challenged models of knowledge that analytically separate cognitive and experiential modalities of knowing, suggesting that the navigator combines cognitive with visual, auditory, and kinesthetic information into an integrated whole. Such a holistic approach to spatial orientation and way-finding raises an important methodological challenge to cognitive anthropology, as certain forms of knowledge are not easily expressed in words. This is particularly true of kinesthetic knowledge of a canoe's motion, which provides navigators with an indirect assessment of wave patterns. Here, we explore one of the authors’ observations during a voyage with a demonstrably accomplished navigator from the Solomon Islands’ Temotu Province who, nonetheless, appeared to provide inconsistent and self-contradictory accounts of his surroundings and performance.

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